A new approach brings familiar success for Dallas Keuchel

Dallas Keuchel’s coming out party in 2014 surprised just about every fan of the game. A 26-year-old with basically no prospect pedigree in his career grabbed headlines any way he could, keeping his ERA under 3.00 on an underwhelming Astros squad. While many had thought it was just a nice season from someone who hadn’t shown much potential prior (full disclosure, I was one of the naysayers), he followed it up by winning the freakin’ Cy Young in 2015 thanks to a 2.48 ERA and stellar 23.7% strikeout rate.

He achieved his success with one of the best sliders in the game, coming from a southpaw no less, walking basically no one, and featuring one of the better beards we’ve had the pleasure of seeing a pitcher rock on the mound. Not to mention Keuchel’s velocity isn’t much to talk about, basically because it doesn’t exist. He has never managed to throw an average of 90 or better in his career, consistently staying in the high 80s.

Soft tossing lefties have some track record of success – Jamie Moyer threw low 80s for years with amazing results given the circumstances, but it is certainly the exception. Last year we saw Keuchel’s strikeout rate fall and ERA balloon in a poor defense of his award-laden 2015 campaign. His 56.7% groundball rate was still fantastic, although a little lower than his career norms, and despite what some overlying numbers suggest he was slightly better than major league average, at least according to FIP-based fWAR and xFIP.

He still was getting average to decent strikeout rates while inducing weak contact and not giving up free passes – a good recipe, albeit with a poor result. Heading into 2017 questions were brought up, while being a similar pitcher without similar success, was 2016 unlucky or an ominous sign of things to come?




Not to ruin this story for you in the third paragraph but it’s starting to feel like the answer is the former. After dealing with shoulder pains throughout the 2016 season, it looks like Keuchel is completely healthy as the new year has come around. Through 10 starts he is sitting pretty with an ERA of just 1.81 and a strikeout rate that rivals his Cy Young season, at 23.9%.

It might seem easy to attribute his success to health, or his slider being more effective, but Keuchel has actually found a different approach to facilitate outs. He’s working exclusively down in the zone, and often below it. He has one of the lowest zone rates in the entire league, and it’s a mindset he’s only used this year. This is displayed graphically below:

It’s a wild change, and an even more insane approach in a way. Countless articles and podcasts have covered how hitters have been coming back against a pitching dominant league by hitting low pitches better with more consistency, and yet Keuchel is daring them by throwing so low.

Even as consistent as he has been with keeping this pitches low and out of the zone, hitters are really not adjusting well at all. Even though they should know he’s trying to get them to chase, he has an above average chase rate of 32.1%, and again, with a fastball under 90 mph.

There’s little to no incentive to be chasing Keuchel supposedly, but it’s also worth mentioning how well the Astros catchers have been framing pitches – 55% of the starts behind the dish have been given to Brian McCann, the seventh most productive pitch framer according to StatCorner’s Runs Above Average (RAA) statistic. At 35% is Evan Gattis, who comes in at rank 21; that’s pretty impressive for a backup. Together they are at 5.0 RAA, the sixth best one-two framing punch.

While it seems a little crazy hitters keep chasing, Keuchel’s battery mates have been stealing him extra strikes to force hitters to chase lower pitches. Essentially they’ve extended the strike zone below the knees, and Keuchel has exploited it fantastically.

Even when hitters have been making contact, he still boasts the best ground ball rate in the majors (67.6%) with an ocean’s gap between him and second place Marcus Stroman (61.6%). So even when hitters manage to make contact, they’re putting it on the ground, and softly. He also has the best soft contact rate (29.4%) with a 3.7 percentage point gap between runner-up Jaime Garcia, who is having something of a resurgent season himself.

Dallas Keuchel has managed to overcome his physical and talent limitations with a smart approach and some help from his teammates. He doesn’t have the same stuff that won him the Cy Young in 2015, but he has an approach that’s giving him results in line with what we saw that season.

This is a hot start you want to buy as much stock in as you can, because Keuchel is showing real results and real improvement. Do not sell high on him as he should continue this current level of production all season.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.
James Krueger

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